Lately I have been opening boxes. In a strange convergence of family moves seven years ago, a surprising number of my ancestors came to live in my house just as I was buying it from my aunt. My great great grandparents gaze mildly down from their gilt frames in the living room, apparently serene about the move from their brownstone in Gilded Age Manhattan. Great Aunt Priscilla watches over my daughter’s bedroom from her faded pencil portrait, her wide blue eyes and little mouth reminding me of my son. Here are my grandmother’s purple chairs and here her needlework, here her desk and here her Shaker broom, and there on the mantle the giant sugar pine cones she brought home from a trip to California long ago. On the shelf below are a few of the dishes a world-traveling great grandfather collected in China. It’s cozy in here with all these generations crowded together. And there is far more family residue still to sort, still in the brown boxes stamped Arnoff Moving & Storage.
One large carton contains the innards of Granny’s desk, which spanned a whole room with large windows from which she could watch the cardinals and wild turkeys and chipmunks and all the creatures of the Connecticut woods about their business in the leaf litter. There are large boxes of “boilfast” thread (I tested each wooden spool to winnow out the rotten ones and take them to my children’s school, where they’ll be put to creative use) and assorted buttons (I smiled at the good—cunning tiny badminton birdies carved of wood—and frowned at the bad: large handmade pink ceramic freeform shapes that strongly resemble feminine anatomy I shan’t mention on the internet). There is an ivory mechanical pencil printed “On To Alaska With Buchanan;” Professor Google tells me a Detroit coal merchant named George Buchanan led expeditions of young people up north between 1923 and 1938…was my grandfather one of those adventurers? There are ancient knitting pins—and I use the old term because pins they are. My modern needle gauges haven’t enough zeros to tell you just how fine they are. About the diameter of a standard paper clip, some of them. And folded into a stack of fabric squares was a girl’s needlework sampler. From 1796.
What does one do with such a treasure? It’s in poor shape, full of holes and bleed marks (the green dyes must have been particularly difficult to fix), badly faded on the front side, with much of the text simple vanished where the black thread has disintegrated. The most tantalizing details, the girl’s name and her age, are lost forever. Miss -bottom, we’ll have to call her, which isn’t a very dignified moniker for an artist. But the year stands proud. 1796. Twenty years after the Declaration of Independence. (But is this sampler even American? Granny’s family was half English, so perhaps not. And would an American girl have stitched crowns on her sampler? Someone out there probably knows enough about the iconography of the time and the needle arts to tell me.) I don’t know how to begin to preserve this piece of history… clearly not folded in quarters, but I daren’t even try to iron it out now.
At some point the little wheels began to turn in my mind. When I was at Bowdoin College I encountered the photography of Abelardo Morell. At the time he was working with books and maps as his subjects. I was hooked. Seriously, go click through his gallery. I’ll wait. Don’t miss this one near the end.
And now I’ve started to wonder if there might be way to translate this venerable piecework into another medium. Sadly, I don’t have Morell’s skills with a camera. But when I turned my lens to these threads and looked closely, I found fairy tale beasts…
… and allegories: beware, little girl. The fabric is frayed. You are standing at the raveled edge.
There is something so touching about the human imperative to impose beauty and order on an uncertain and often brutal life. The verses this girl chose, stitching each letter so neatly and minutely, framing them with a fretwork of flowering vines and an exuberance of embroidered blossoms… I looked them up, relying on the salient phrases I could decipher to lead me to the origin.
“LORD, I confess thy sentence just, That sinful man should turn to dust; That I e’er long should yield my breath, The captive of all conqu’ring death. Soon will the awful hour appear, When I must quit my dwelling here: These active limbs, to worms a prey, in the cold grave must waste away; Nor shall I share in all that’s done, in this wide world beneath the sun.” –The Works of Philip Doddridge, Volume 5, Lesson XXI, On death
In 1796, how many people had this child already lost? How many playmates dead of fever, how many aunts or cousins in childbed, perhaps her own brother or sister tucked in the earth after accident or illness? It grieves me to think of someone her age calmly (and, it must be said, with a fine eye for typography) working those resigned phrases, feeling their weight as she must have done. And yet I have to admire her gumption in juxtaposing those somber reflections with that fanciful botany. The other passage she chose was from James Thomson’s 1726 poem “Winter:”
“Father of Light and Life! thou Good Supreme! / O teach me what is good! teach me thyself! / Save me from folly, vanity, and vice, / From every low pursuit! and feed my soul / With knowledge, conscious peace, and virtue pure; / Sacred, substantial, never fading bliss!”
(Our Miss -bottom sensibly reigned in the punctuation.) Knowledge, conscious peace, morning glories, and exquisite little red deer against the cold grave. Wise child. I will treasure your tiny stitches.